Things to see & do in Edinburgh

There are enough things to see and do in Edinburgh to keep you on the go for a month, but we’ve narrowed it down to some of the key historic landmarks, a sprinkling of the Scottish capital’s most renowned museums and galleries, and a few of our favourite places that are a little way off the beaten tourist track.

There’s no getting away from the fact that Edinburgh welcomes a lot of tourists – especially during the summer months and around New Year (Hogmanay). Yet from Arthur’s Seat and Dean Village to Dunbar’s Close and the subterranean Edinburgh Vaults, there are plenty of places above, below and even close to the city centre where you can escape the queues.

Read on to learn the best way to spend a few days in Edinburgh.

Arthur’s Seat

Arthur’s Seat, just to the east of Edinburgh Castle, is an extinct volcano from the summit of which you can enjoy superb views across the city and the Lothians. It’s not a hard climb if you have any experience of hillwalking, taking around two hours to get up and down, and there are several trails with varying degrees of difficulty. Sunrise and sunset are popular times to make the trek up, and it gets especially busy in summer so be sure to stick to the trails for safety and to minimise any damage to vegetation.

Camera Obscura & World of Illusions

Having begun life as an observatory in the mid-19th century, the Camera Obscura on the Royal Mile is one of Edinburgh’s most popular visitor attractions. There are more than 100 interactive exhibits spread across five floors, offering mind-boggling optical illusions along with puzzles, mazes and holograms. The original camera obscura on the top floor takes you on a street tour of Edinburgh, while the views from the rooftop terrace are rightly considered some of the best in the city.

Craigmillar Castle

Edinburgh’s ‘second’ castle was briefly home to Mary, Queen of Scots in the 16th century. The well-preserved ruins are situated a little way outside the city centre, and centres on one of the oldest tower houses in Scotland, from which you can see Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Park. It served as a kind of rural royal retreat, though one with thick walls and battlements. Continually expanded and refurbished over the centuries, the castle is a veritable labyrinth, while outside stand ancient yew trees thought to have once provided wood for bows and arrows.

Dean Village & Well Court

This riverside neighbourhood, with its medieval half-timbered houses, is a real charmer and a peaceful spot to while away an afternoon. It’s amazing to think it’s just a short walk from the bustle of Princes Street.

Well Court, which was built in the 1880s to provide model housing for workers, has been beautifully restored through a conservation initiative led by Edinburgh World Heritage. Traditional materials have been used, and efforts made to replicate the original architectural design and colour scheme. While the flats are occupied by private residents, you can wander the lovely communal courtyard.

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh’s most famous landmark proudly perches atop Castle Rock and is visible from around the city. Over the centuries the castle has served as a royal palace, a fortress and a military prison. It also holds the title of most besieged castle in Britain. Tours here follow a fascinating cast of characters – kings and queens, of course, but also soldiers, prisoners of war and even pirates – through royal apartments, dungeons and battlements.

Edinburgh Vaults

Beneath Edinburgh’s South Bridge is a series of vaulted chambers that, back in the 18th and 19th centuries, were used as workshops and storage space. As their condition degraded, they came to be inhabited by the poorest of society, along with assorted criminals including, legend has it, body snatchers. Today you can explore them on atmospheric ghost tours to hear spooky stories of Edinburgh’s dark side – hangings, torture and treasonous plots. Join an adults-only tour by night, if you have the nerve, for a unique spin on the city’s history.

Johnnie Walker, Princes Street

With aficionados including Winston Churchill and Richard Nixon, Johnnie Walker ranks among the most popular Scotch blended whiskies. Tours and tasting sessions inside this handsome one-time department store explore 200 years of distilling heritage. Connoisseurs can sample whisky straight from the cask in the cellar, taste single malts from across the Highlands and the Hebrides in the Explorers’ Bothy, or enjoy a wee dram while soaking up views across the city from the 1820 Rooftop Bar.

National Museum of Scotland

“The National Museum of Scotland is an interesting and highly interactive museum,” says Keira from our Scotland rail holidays partner McKinlay Kidd. “The glass roof (over 80m long and 24m high) with grand columns and balustrades is an architectural gem.”

The galleries here showcase everything from Scottish history and architecture to the natural world, art and design, and cultures from around the world. The museum also investigates and addresses the colonial and imperial legacies of its collection, through topics such as the transatlantic slave trade and looting during military campaigns.

Palace of Holyroodhouse

The official residence of the British monarch in Scotland is situated at the foot of the Royal Mile, at the opposite end to Edinburgh Castle. When the monarch is not in residence, some areas are open to the public, including state apartments where you can admire the chambers of Mary, Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Throne Room, the Royal Dining Room, and the vast Great Gallery where royalty would host balls and receptions. You can also explore the palace’s magnificent gardens, which are particularly lovely in summer when songbirds trill along the pathways.

Royal Botanic Gardens

Dating as far back as 1670, Edinburgh’s magnificent Royal Botanic Gardens play an immensely significant role in preserving the biodiversity on which we all depend, involved with many conservation initiatives around the world. So while entrance is free to this stunning 30-hectare landscape, generous donations are welcomed to support their work. Spend an afternoon here and you can’t fail to gain a deeper understanding of plant life and how important it is to preserve it.

Royal Mile

Connecting Edinburgh Castle with the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Royal Mile runs through the Old Town and is lined with magnificent old tenement buildings as well as restaurants, pubs and some of the city’s most sought-after visitor attractions such as the Camera Obscura and St Giles’ Cathedral. Key areas include the Castle Esplanade, where the annual Royal Military Tattoo is held, Canongate, the Lawnmarket and Abbey Strand. Duck into Dunbar’s Close for a glimpse of a quieter side to Edinburgh, a sedate, 17th-century style garden that most people completely miss.

Scottish National Gallery

One of several significant structures on The Mound, an artificial hillock that links Edinburgh’s Old Town with the New Town, the Scottish National Gallery displays a renowned collection of Scottish and international artworks. Alongside Henry Raeburn’s famous Skating Minister and James Drummond’s The Porteous Mob, you’ll find works by the likes of Botticelli, Constable, Degas, Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Monet in a building that resembles a Greek temple.

Street markets

Surrounded with grand medieval architecture, the Grassmarket area of the Old Town is a lively spot day and night, especially during the Saturday market. Instead, try the Leith market, also on Saturdays, which sees Edinburgh residents flocking to sample the offerings of local craftspeople – everything from Harris Tweed to Scottish cheese and natural skin products. The delicacies you’ll find in the Vegan Quarter are particularly flavoursome. Another good alternative is the weekend Pitt Market, also in Leith, where some of the biggest names on Edinburgh’s street food scene ply their wares.

Walking tours

Edinburgh walking tours are always a great way to find your bearings, as well as to learn more about the city’s history and culture from an expert local guide. A typical tour is likely to cover both the Old and New Towns, with landmarks including Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Mile and Grassmarket, as well as landmarks including the statue of Greyfriars Bobby and the Political Martyrs Monument. But you can also find tours based around Scottish whisky, or some of the city’s dark and spooky secrets.
Travel Team
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Our travellers also ask…

What is the best time of year to visit Edinburgh?

Edinburgh is fantastic to visit at any time of year, with the caveat that during the summer peak season it gets very touristy. That’s especially the case in August when the city hosts the Fringe Festival, as well as several other events including the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo. You can avoid the crowds by exploring the vibrant waterfront neighbourhoods of Leith and Stockbridge, just out of the city centre. For mild weather without the crowds, May, June and September are also good months to be in Edinburgh.

There are few places better to be than Edinburgh at New Year, when Hogmanay celebrations take over the city for three days. Christmas markets, torchlight processions, live music and spectacular fireworks displays, all capped with a rousing chorus of Auld Lang Syne at midnight.

Where can you go to from Edinburgh by train?

On a rail tour of Scotland from Edinburgh, you can connect with the West Highland Line via Glasgow and Fort William. Another option is to take the train up from Edinburgh to the pleasant town of Pitlochry then on to Inverness, from where you can connect with the Kyle Line, which terminates at the Kyle of Lochalsh and the bridge over to the Isle of Skye.

How many days do you need to see Edinburgh?

Two to three days is enough to take in key landmarks such as the castle and Royal Mile, as well as a handful of the city’s many prestigious museums and art galleries. It should also leave you time to branch off from some of the more touristy areas into neighbourhoods such as Leith, which can be walked easily from the city centre by a riverside trail.

What should I not miss in Edinburgh?

The essential places to visit in Edinburgh include Edinburgh Castle, the Royal Mile which links it with the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and the superb Royal Botanic Gardens.

But for a more relaxed and less touristy introduction to the Scottish capital with fewer crowds, we’d recommend making the hike up to Arthur’s Seat for views across the city, or taking a walking tour to learn aspects of Edinburgh’s history and culture from a local guide imbued with interesting knowledge.

Spending a few hours at one of the city’s lesser-known street markets is also a good way to rub shoulders with local people, as well as to find some unique souvenirs such as Scottish-made artisan cheeses.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Connor Mollison] [Intro: Emran Yousof] [Arthur’s Seat: Evy Prentice] [Edinburgh Castle: Saffron Blaze] [Royal Botanic Gardens: Ham]